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Bringing Perspective to the Challenges of the Day

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

The Newberry Library
60 West Walton Street
Chicago, IL 60610
United States

September 11, 2009

Thank you, President Spadafora, for such a thoughtful introduction. I am honored to be with you this evening in the capital of the great American Midwest, the academic center of the Great Books tradition.

What the humanities are all about, and what this extraordinary library so wondrously helps facilitate, is the bringing of perspective to the personal and public challenges of the day. History, literature, and philosophy illumine the human condition. Values, for instance, cannot simply be understood as abstract concoctions. They take on meaning as individuals address enduring questions related to faith and theoretical thought and the study of peoples, leaders, and events—some close-up, familial; some more distant in time and place; some real; some fictional; some inspiring, perhaps spiritual; others less uplifting, even venal.

To observe and think through how others interact and make decisions prepares us for making value based judgments for ourselves, our immediate community, and our relationship with the world at large.

To illustrate the larger point of relations with the world at large I would like to mention several examples from a group of what might be labeled two-minute humanities courses, each with implications for value development and citizen leadership.

Classics 101: In a chronicle of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides described the decline of strength and values in Athens as it confronted Sparta. Early in the war the Athenian assembly met to debate a dilemma that had developed on a small island named Melos where the citizenry had announced neutrality in the conflict. Angered at not receiving support, the assembly voted to send a fleet to Melos to conquer the island. Shortly after the fleet was sent, the Athenians reassembled and reconsidered their initial judgment. A fast ship was sent to instruct the fleet to return. Several decades later as the conflict raged on, the Athenian assembly revisited the issue and decided again to send a fleet to conquer the island. This time there was no reconsideration. The men of Melos were killed and the women and children enslaved. Thucydides was a historian rather than moralizer, but the lesson was clear. Injustice had transpired and the city that had become the unsurpassed center of Western civilization had lost its moorings.

Could a modern day Athens find itself so challenged that it also in short order might lose its history-crafted sense of self?

In Europe, particularly France, there was an immediate identification with America on 9/11, and then within a year intellectuals, who on the Continent reason less futuristically and more historically than we do, began to suggest that ancient Greece provided relevant analogies to modern American leadership. But European analogies were more to mythology—Oedipus, for example—than Greek history. The Chinese, on the other hand, were initially quite impressed with the military technology we employed in Iraq and then became perhaps more surprised than we that military dominance could not effectively dictate political terms to a fractured populace. The analogies that pervasively swept Beijing related to Roman rather than Greek history, in this case the slower, multi-generational decline and fall of a more expansive but less erudite civilization than that of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

Today there is nary a soul in China who does not assume anything, except that we are blundering on the twilight side of a historical swing, while China is viewed as the greatest civilization of the past and the resurgent power of the future. Americans, for our part, recognize that something is akilter in aspects of our politics and social fabric. But we have grounds for optimism based on leadership in so many fields of human endeavor from corporate organization to the creative arts and humanities.

The second course is Moral Philosophy 101. Human nature may be a constant, but it was understood better at the time of our country’s founding than in our more turbulent era. The founders were moral philosophers as well as political activists. They were appalled by the arrogance of a hereditary aristocracy and declared with Jefferson a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” They were so apprehensive of human frailty and concentration of power that they established checks and balances between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches and then decentralized political authority further by insuring that similar checks and balances existed at the state, county, and city levels. Power was thus federalized: separated within levels of government and bifurcated between them.

There is something about the human condition that wants to be allowed to make governing decisions at socially cohesive levels where citizens may have impact. A lot is written today about globalism, but this century is also about localism. To adapt to a fast changing world, one must understand both of these phenomena—the fact, as Tip O’Neill repeatedly noted, that all politics are local and the corollary, as we have learned again with the financial crisis, that all local decisions are affected by international events.

Physics 101: For those who ever studied physics, you may recall that Sir Isaac Newton suggested that there existed three laws of motion, the third of which was that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, or in short-hand, action equals reaction. One day in the mid-1990s sitting on the floor of the House of Representatives, I discovered as a political pun what I have come to describe as the fourth Newt-onian law. This law of society as contrasted with nature was deduced from an observation made much the same way Newton kept noticing that apples invariably fell down rather than up from a tree. Watching the then speaker of the House punctuating a partisan point and then reflecting on the reaction of members of the other party, I concluded that the fourth Newt-onian law contradicted the third. Unlike natural physics, in social chemistry reaction can often be greater than action.

If, for instance, an individual were to call another a bum or a country in which he lived “evil,” the reaction might produce effects far greater than the precipitating words envisioned or intended. The school yard mantra that sticks and stones may break bones, but names never hurt, is frequently not the case in the kindergarten we call life. It matters what people say and how they say it.

Literature 101 involves a set of four books called the Alexandria Quartet by the British author Lawrence Durrell. Set in inter-war Egypt (i.e. between the first and second World Wars) in the town of Alexandria, Durrell in the first book spins a story from the eyes of one of the participants. Then he proceeds to describe the same set of events again and again in subsequent books, each a first person perspective from the eyes of other participants. One wonders why read about the same events more than once. It ends up that each story is profoundly different. The moral is that to get a sense of reality, it is necessary to see things from more than one set of eyes. This may apply to interactions in a community, a court room, or in international relations where what America does may seem reasonable from our perspective but look very different from the eyes of a European or African, a Middle Easterner or an Asian.

Reality 101: Over the past several years two Harvard political theorists, Samuel Huntington and Joseph Nye, have written about the dangers of a clash of civilizations and of the role of soft as contrasted with hard power in international relations. The first is the notion that wars of the future may be less country-to-country conflicts than between groupings of nation-states tied together as much by common heritage as common interests. The second is about the need to complement military power with diplomatic interactions and people-to-people exchanges. These are important frameworks of thought for the public to dwell upon. But I would add to such considerations the contrasting model of realism vs. pseudo-realism in policy development and the ideological factor in decision-making.

Realists look to effect, not to bluster. But what should a citizen think of ideological arguments that arms control agreements are to be avoided and diplomacy, particularly multi-lateral diplomacy, is soft-headed? Should we not ask whether this is pseudo-realism? What is more realistic and more consistent with the American heritage than attempting to advance the rule of law? Americans prefer to work in alliances. It is nonsense, realism inverted, to press a foreign policy rooted in snubbing the concerns of others.

One of the myths of our time is that realism is principally about might. Actually realism is about the human condition. Nations that are ill-led and ill-fed are breeding grounds for radicalism. Where there is no hope, there is nothing to lose. When life, as Hobbes once described, becomes nasty, brutish, and short in a jungle of hopelessness and humiliation, it becomes easily expendable, sometimes by martyred self-choice.

America at its best combines enthusiastic idealism with Yankee pragmatism. One without the other is a prescription for failure.

And America at its wisest recognizes that what is at issue in the world is the fundamental question of how to advance civilized values and inter-relate in civilized ways.

Now that the two great “isms” of 20th-century hate—fascism and communism—have been defeated or at least for the time marginalized, it is relevant to contemplate, particularly on this day, the eighth anniversary of the toppling of the twin towers, whether the strategic dilemma of our times mirrors the philosophical paradigm with which our founders grappled. Our Jeffersonian democracy is philosophically rooted in the brute contrast of a Hobbesian state of nature where self-centered human relations could only lead to anarchy with Locke’s vision of civil society where rules could govern disputes and third party arbitration would exist to adjudicate differences.

It is the prospect of a Hobbesian jungle in the wake of the challenges of totalitarian man that is central to concerns of this new century’s first decade. After all, what distinguishes this generation of citizens of the world is both the existence for the first time in human history of the capacity of man to destroy the species with what science has wrought—weapons of mass destruction—and at the same time, the ability of hate-mongers to implode civilized values with the crude clubs of anarchy, which for the first time have obtained an international reach.

In this context, when the issue on the table of man is civilized values, the case for a re-emphasis on the humanities could not be more compelling. Yet humanities as a subject of study and reflection are in retreat. Colleges and universities have found their endowments pummeled; state and federal revenues are restrained as social obligations in a variety of areas have increased; and in the academy new emphasis is being placed on what many perceive as more intensely job-related disciplines.

Symbolically the National Endowment for the Humanities hit a high water mark of resource allocation in 1979. Adjusted for inflation our budget is barely a third what it was then.

Like most areas of social endeavor the Endowment is not the only source of revenue for the humanities, but its work has never been more important and its role never more vital. Hence despite a circumstance where debt management at private and governmental levels can be expected to be a front and center consideration for at least the next decade, I intend to be an advocate for the fields of inquiry that provide the most long-term perspective.

What must be recognized is that while there is a cost to any governmental endeavor (in this case the NEH’s budget is approximately 6/1,000ths of one percent of federal outlays), short-changing the humanities can be costly, too. A society without perspective is like a submarine operating in a sea of icebergs without radar or a periscope. National security requires sophisticated technology. It also requires mature judgment.

Thank you.